By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the latest InterMat rankings for college wrestling, defending ACC champion UVa is No. 34, so by one measure fifth-year coach Steve Garland’s team appears headed in the wrong direction.
The Cavaliers, after all, have been ranked as high as No. 21 by InterMat this season. But don’t be deceived. This is not a team in freefall.
This is a team that’s been competing without three of its top wrestlers: 141-pounder Nick Nelson, 165-pounder Jedd Moore and 197-pounder Mike Salopek, all of whom came into the season nationally ranked.
When the Wahoos are healthy, Garland noted Wednesday in his Onesty Hall office, “we got a heck of a program.”
The challenge for UVa this season has been getting — and staying — healthy. Nelson, a redshirt junior, has wrestled only six matches (winning all of them), none since Nov. 13. Salopek, a redshirt sophomore, has been in and out of the lineup, wrestling only eight times. Moore, also a redshirt sophomore, has yet to take the mat for the ‘Hoos this season.
Still, there is reason for optimism. Nelson’s recovery from an elbow injury is going well, Garland said, and the news on him “is all positive. We’re hoping to get him back by the end of the month at the earliest and early February at the latest.”
Moore, who has had foot problems, “should be back hopefully this weekend,” Garland said. “If not this weekend, then next weekend.”
Salopek is dealing with several injuries, Garland said, and “he’s day to day. One day he’s great. The next day we gotta take a step back.” But Garland expects Salopek to rejoin the lineup by the end of the regular season.
UVa (11-4) has three dual meets this weekend, all at Memorial Gym. Virginia is coming off a best-ever sixth-place finish at the Virginia Duals. Garland’s standouts in Hampton included senior 174-pounder Chris Henrich — no shock there — freshman 141-pounder Gus Sako and redshirt freshman 184-pound Jon Fausey.
In its first ACC dual meet, Virginia hosts NC State at 1 p.m. Saturday. The Cavaliers will wrestle twice Sunday, facing the University of Pennsylvania at 2:30 p.m. and VMI at 4 p.m.
The ACC championships are March 5 at John Paul Jones Arena, and the Cavaliers don’t want to relinquish the crown they won last year in Raleigh, N.C.
“That’s what’s keeping everybody motivated,” Garland said. “Look, these dual meets matter, but they also are means to an end. I’ve said that every year since I’ve been here. It’s all prep for ACCs and nationals. We’ve done a good job of peaking at ACCs, and my hope is that we can do that again.
“I don’t care if we have to sit Nick and Jedd for a little while longer, or Salopek for a couple more duals. Because at the end of the day, all that matters is the postseason. So if we can get everybody firing on all cylinders at the end of the year, then I think we’re going to be pretty good.”
With Moore sidelined, Garland has been tempted to use freshman Nick Sulzer at 165. Sulzer has compiled a 20-5 record wrestling unattached at that weight this season, and “he’s going to be a freak,” Garland said.
This is a sport in which redshirting is common, though, and having a fifth year should benefit Sulzer tremendously, Garland believes. So he will continue to field lineups that don’t include Sulzer, who’s being groomed to replace Henrich at 174 next season.
Henrich, who placed third at the NCAA championships last year, has 120 career victories, a school record. He’s 19-1 this season, the loss coming Dec. 30 at the Southern Scuffle.
That tournament in Greensboro, N.C., was most notable for the emergence of Penn State redshirt freshman Ed Ruth. In the semifinals, Ruth stunned Cornell senior Mack Lewnes 11-5. Lewnes was the NCAA runner-up at 174 last season and came into the Scuffle ranked No. 1 nationally.
Henrich was ranked No. 2, but Ruth beat him 7-2 in the championship match.
“Everybody knew Ruth was a stud,” Garland said, “but I don’t think people knew how freakishly gifted he was until he knocked off both guys.”
Ruth’s performance in the final “not only shocked me, but more importantly I think it shocked Chris,” Garland said.
“I think it just woke us up. I think it just woke Chris up to the fact that, ‘Hey, there’s guys out there that are good in positions that I’m not.’ This guy got in on Chris’ legs — and nobody finishes that easy on Chris — and took him down fairly easily.
“I’ll be honest with you, I think it’s good for him, a kid that’s that competitive and wins as much as Chris does. He doesn’t lose very often. Sometimes you need to get knocked down a couple pegs in order to say, ‘All right, that’s it, I’m ready now.’ Because he looked great at the [Virginia] Duals.”